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Related Reading: Editions Dis Voir: Tsai Ming-liang by Olivier Joyard, Jean-Pierre Rehm, and Danièle Revière.


Ch'ing shaonien na cha, 1992
[Rebels of the Neon God]

LeeOn a raining evening at a nondescript telephone booth in Taipei, two petty criminals, Ah-tze (Chen Chao-jung) and his friend Ah-ping (Jen Chang-bin) drill through the lock of the public telephone and steal the contents of the collection box. In another part of the city, an unmotivated and distracted student named Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) encounters a cockroach in his room, stabs the insect with the point of his compass, and tosses its dead carcass into the turbulent wind, only to find the seemingly tenacious vermin resurface on the other side of his window. In a quintessential, understatedly amusing scene, Hsiao-Kang unsuccessfully attempts to swat the insect, crashes his palm through the window, and calmly walks into the bathroom to dress his injured hand, amidst the perplexed and inquisitive gaze of his father (Tien Miao) and mother (Lu Hsiao-Ling). The scene then cuts to the alienating soundtrack of an ominous bass drone against the shot of a crowded arcade, as the two young men squander their stolen change on an aimless evening playing mind-numbing video games. On the following morning, Hsiao-Kang decides to disenroll and pocket the tuition refund from his college preparatory class, and returns to the parking area to discover that his scooter has been impounded. Deprived of his means of transportation, Hsiao-Kang begins to walk the streets, and is spotted by his father while driving his taxicab. The father offers assistance in recovering Hsiao-Kang's scooter, and convinces him to forgo his afternoon classes and join him in watching a movie. However, as they attempt to weave their way through traffic, their path is impeded by the discourteous Ah-tze who is escorting his brother's girlfriend, a roller skating rink operator named Ah-kuei (Wang Yu-Wen), on his motorcycle. As the father attempts to maneuver around Ah-tze's obstructing vehicle, Hsiao-Kang witnesses Ah-tze's inexplicable act of smashing the sideview mirror of the taxicab before casually driving away. Without the responsibility of attending tutorial classes or employment, Hsiao-Kang spends his idle time at a local mall, and one day, spots Ah-tze and his friends at the video arcade. Inevitably, the aimless Hsiao-Kang begins to follow the charismatic delinquent through his familiar routine, before setting on a course to exact revenge.

Tsai Ming-liang presents a harrowing, austere, and poignant examination of urban decay, amorality, ennui, and alienation in Rebels of the Neon God. Introducing recurring elements that would come to define the essence of Tsai's droll, minimalist, and idiosyncratic cinema, Rebels of the Neon God is a complex and metaphoric film that examines familiar Tsai themes: the ubiquitous presence of water (incessant rainstorms, the flooded kitchen floor of Ah-tze's apartment, Ah-ping's disclosed interest in Ah-kuei at a public toilet); the violative nature of the confined, shared spaces inherent in urban living (the opening shot of the telephone booth theft, Ah-tze's unexpected intrusion while Ah-kuei uses the bathroom, Hsiao-Kang's persistence in following Ah-tze), and the regression of human behavior to base instincts (Ah-tze's acts of vandalism and theft, and Hsiao-Kang's revenge). Through awkward and acutely wry scenes of prolonged and oppressive silence, odd actions, and instinctual behavior, Tsai confronts issues of identity, spiritual bankruptcy, and emotional disconnection with compassion, pathos, and humor. As a weary and distraught Ah-kuei hopelessly pleads "let's leave this place", she articulates a profound and compassionate anthem for a lost and marginalized generation foundering in the inertia of technology and modernization, complacently worshipping a hedonistic, and ultimately false, god.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Aiqing wansui, 1994
[Vive l'amour]

YangIn the crowded metropolitan city of Taipei, the empty lives of three strangers cross paths in a vacant apartment. The film opens to a shot of a key accidentally left on the front door. Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), a fragile, young salesman, seizes the key, inspects the apartment, and decides to move in, proceeding to bathe, dress, then retire to a bedroom to cut his wrist superficially with a pocket knife. On another part of town, a resourceful, determined real estate agent, May Lin (Yang Kuei Mei), goes through her sales ritual: posting signs, conducting an open house, calling potential buyers. During a refreshment break at a cafeteria, May Lin catches the eye of a shallow, self-involved street merchant, Ah-Jung (Chen Chao-jung), and the attraction is mutual. There is no communication in their mating ritual; only a series of knowing glances and coyish pursuit. The sexual game terminates at the same "vacant" apartment, where the two engage in casual, meaningless physical intimacy. On the following morning, Ah-Jung steals the apartment key from May Lin and also moves in, unaware of Hsiao-Kang's presence in the other room. As Hsiao-Kang spends his day disseminating columbarium advertisements around town, Ah-Jung also passes idle time: making prank telephone calls to May Lin; driving aimlessly around town; selling clothing on a busy sidewalk. But when May Lin decides to spend an afternoon at the apartment to rest, the uninvited guests find themselves forming an unlikely alliance to avoid discovery.

Tsai Ming-liang creates a spare, subtle, and incisive portrait of loneliness and isolation in Vive l'amour. By juxtaposing the ambient sounds of the city with minimal dialogue among the characters, Tsai presents a disaffected and alienated view of urban life: the silent seduction between May Lin and Ah-Jung; May Lin's inability to recognize Ah-Jung on the street nor his voice on the telephone; Ah-Jung and Hsiao-Kang's non-interaction in the apartment, until May Lin's unexpected presence compels them to cooperate in their evasion. Ironically, even May Lin's conversations are also literally remote (as she calls the main office from several real estate properties using a cell phone) and disconnected (as Ah-Jung's calls are truncated when his time allowance expires at a telephone booth). Inevitably, the title of the film, Vive l'amour, proves to be an elusive declaration in the lives of three people leading an anonymous life of quiet despair in an increasingly impersonal modern world.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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He liu, 1997
[The River]

Chen/LeeAn unemployed young man named Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) passes idle time at a local Taipei mall when he encounters an old friend (Chen Shiang-chyi) on the opposite escalator. With time on his hands, he agrees to accompany her back to the location shoot where she is working as a production assistant for a film. At the site, the director is displeased with the unrealistic appearance of a mannequin intended to represent a dead body floating on the river, and asks the aimless Hsiao-Kang to act as a stand-in for the shot. Despite his reservations, Hsiao-Kang acquiesces to float, face down, in the malodorous, contaminated waters of the river for the film. After the shoot, he checks into a nearby hotel in order to bathe and change his clothes, but soon realizes that the pollution does not easily wash away. Later in the day, his friend returns, and the two share a brief moment of intimacy before eventually parting to their separate ways. The film then cuts to the image of a middle-aged man (Tien Miao) at a bath house soliciting a somnolent patron in the dark, before being unequivocally rebuffed by the stranger. The film then shifts back to Hsiao-Kang, who begins to experience a sharp pain on the side of his neck, causing him to tilt his head sideways, and consequently lose his balance. He passes by the middle-aged man on his motorcycle, and only after his crash does it become apparent that the two people know each other. Later, it is shown that the man is his father. The film again shifts focus to an attractive middle-aged woman (Lu Hsiao-Ling) as she operates a commercial elevator, passes out discount coupons, takes home some leftovers from the kitchen, and meets her lover. The woman dines alone, then retires to her bedroom, and Hsiao-Kang's polite knock on her door and inquiry for medication for his sore neck reveals that she is his mother. And so the austere portrait of Hsiao-Kang's profoundly isolated homelife and emotional abandonment gradually emerges in The River, as his crippling affliction becomes a hopeless and desperate cause that binds together his splintered family.

The River is a bleak and austere portrait of urban alienation and emotional isolation. Through the recurrent imagery of water as a metaphoric medium for the process of human interaction, Tsai Ming-liang illustrates the societal malaise and impersonal nature of modern existence: the father's frequent search for anonymous liaisons at a public bath house; the exposure to the polluted river manifests in a painful, physical malady for Hsiao-Kang; the persistent roof leak in the father's bedroom that exacerbates as a result of inaction and deferred repair. Similar to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Hsiao-Kang's sickness of the soul manifests as an environmental aberration that, in turn, results in a physical paralysis. Inevitably, like Hsiao-Kang's mysterious, indefinable ailment, what emerges is a self-perpetuating cycle of incurable alienation and agonizing personal despair.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Dong, 1998
[The Hole]

Lee/YangThe final days of the year 1999 prove to be a bleak and chaotic time in Taipei. A widespread virus, "Taiwan Fever", has crippled the city, reducing its victims into exhibiting unusual, cockroach-like behavior. Quarantined areas have been established, and the uninfected residents are repeatedly encouraged through news broadcasts to evacuate into government arranged temporary housing until the spread of the virus can be controlled. But some defiant residents refuse to abandon their homes, and as a last resort, the government has threatened to cut off the water supply and garbage collection to these quarantined areas on January 1, 2000. A young man (Lee Kang-sheng) and his downstairs neighbor (Yang Kuei-Mei) have decided to remain in their dilapidated tenements and ride out the figurative (and literal) storm. One day, a plumber knocks on the young man's door, looking for the source of a leak in the apartment below. The man leaves his apartment to open his small grocery store and feed an abandoned cat in the desolate town market, only to return home and find that the plumber has left a gaping hole through the concrete slab floor into the woman's downstairs apartment. Initially, the intrusive young man sees the hole as a convenient mechanism for observing his unsuspecting neighbor: mopping the floors from the water leak, stockpiling toilet paper in a spare room, eating instant noodle soup. However, as the isolation of their oppressive environment continues to erode their psyche, the hole becomes their only source for human contact - their last, desperate means of connection.

The Hole is Tsai Ming-liang's Taiwanese entry into the monumental world cinema project, 2000: Seen By..., commissioned by French television, La Sept Arte. Tsai's oblique vision of a languishing, highly industrialized, and impersonal post "economic miracle" Taiwan recalls the bleak landscape and pervasive ennui of Michelangelo Antonioni's films. The sound of incessant rain, extended silence, and viral quarantine create a sense of claustrophobia. Tsai's camerawork consists of long, extended takes and narrow, isolated framing to further create a visual sense of entrapment. Note the dichotomy of the first Grace Chang-inspired musical sequence by the woman in the elevator (Oh, Calypso), followed by the jarring, mechanical sound of closing elevator doors, as the unconscious, inebriated man sits inside. Tsai further uses the visual incongruity of the colorful, high energy, campy musical fantasy sequences as a sharp contrast to the tedium of the woman's oppressive existence, and as a reflection of her increasing attraction to the man upstairs. The Hole is a highly original, spare, and clever film on the primal need for human connection, an examination of the omnipotent power of love ...and an exhilarating, unabashed tribute to the musical legacy of the irrepressible Grace Chang.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Ni neibian jidian, 2001
[7 to 400 Blows/What Time is it There?]

LuWhat Time is it There? opens to a long, unbroken static shot of a middle-aged man (Tien Miao) preparing the kitchen table for a meal, then calling for his son, Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) to no avail, then biding time waiting for his family to sit down for dinner by smoking a cigarette, before walking to the rear terrace to move a sickly potted plant, passively staring out into the distance. The extended scene proves to be an introductory glimpse into a series of missed connections as the scene cuts to the image of Hsiao Kang transporting his father's ashes to a columbarium in a taxicab - his acknowledgment of his father's earlier summons arriving too late - the unreciprocated dialogue between father and son made acutely palpable by the elegantly covered mortal vessel that now separates them. One afternoon, an attractive young woman named Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) stops by Hsiao Kang's makeshift watch stand to look for a dual-time chronometer for her upcoming trip to Paris and, unable to find a suitable one, convinces the reluctant street vendor into selling his own. Overwhelmed by an inarticulable sense of loss and longing, Hsiao Kang's grief manifests as an innocuous, unrequited obsession for the persistent customer, and vicariously attempts to immerse himself in her new environment by seeking out films about Paris and setting all of the clocks at his disposal to Paris time - unaware that Shiang-chyi's melancholy and feelings of estrangement are equally overwhelming. Meanwhile, Hsiao Kang's emotionally devastated mother (Lu Hsiao-Ling) continues to seek guidance from a traditional priest in an attempt to connect with her late husband, following him as he casts a spell on yin-yang water at her husband's memorial altar so that he may drink from it after he is resurrected. In an understatedly amusing, yet poignant episode, she later returns to the altar and additionally places a serving of roast duck alongside the yin-yang water as a further inducement for him to return home. Inevitably, despite the seemingly fated, intersecting lives of three lonely and desperate people, the remedy for their emotional void seems indefinably out of reach.

Tsai Ming-Liang creates a sublime, gently humorous, and affectionate examination of transience, connection, and coincidence in What Time is it There?. Using recurrent, allusive, and dualistic imagery that figuratively link the disconnected lives of Hsiao Kang, his mother, and Shiang-chyi, Tsai visually unites their grief and longing into a universal existential portrait of contemporary alienation: the family's idiosyncratic care and treatment for the dying house plant; Hsiao Kang's viewing of François Truffaut's The 400 Blows on a sleepless evening that is later paralleled with Shiang-chyi's encounter with Jean-Pierre Leaud at a Paris cemetery; the long take of cars speeding past Hsiao Kang on the freeway that cuts into a shot of hurried commuters rushing past Shiang-chyi on a motorized walkway; the waterwheel at a Taipei mall that is echoed in the final shot of the film. Note the amusing homage to a similarly themed film on chance and connection, Kryzsztof Kieslowski's Red, as Hsiao Kang listens to a radio broadcast urging driver caution for an errant dog loose on the streets that further reinforces the commonality of life experience between Paris and Taipei. Through comedic, yet achingly bittersweet episodes of near encounters, duality, and coincidence,
What Time is it There? transcends the bounds of geographical, cultural, and personal isolation to map the elusive metaphysical plane of human interconnectedness.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Tian bian yi duo yun, 2005
[The Wayward Cloud]

Chen/LeeIn an early episode in The Wayward Cloud, Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi) spends an aimless afternoon watching television news reports on the ongoing drought and the coincidentally timed falling market price of watermelons, leading the anchorman to jokingly remark that drinking watermelon juice has become more economical than drinking water. The theme of essential substitution proves particularly metaphoric (and revelatory) in light of Tsai Ming Liang's own comments on the symbolism of water in his films (as transcribed in the Editions Dis Voir publication, Tsai Ming Liang): "...I always regard the characters in my films as plants which are short of water, which are almost on the point of dying from lack of water. Actually, water for me is love, that's what they lack. What I'm trying to show is very symbolic, it's their need for love." It is within this context that the ubiquitous and often comical presence of watermelons in the film (used as sexual paraphernalia for an erotic film, a colorful recurring motif in an Umbrellas of Cherbourg-styled dream sequence, and a medium of polite exchange in a display of innocent, mutual affection) can be seen as a surrogate manifestation of the fundamental human need for connection.

The repeated image of elevators in the film provides another recurring element within Tsai's oeuvre. Dynamic and transitory, the elevators (or as in the case of The River, escalators) in Tsai's films recall the desolate, interior spaces of Chantal Akerman's early structural films (most notably, the elevators of Hotel Monterey and the subway cars of News from Home that similarly reflect their role as impermanent vessels for transporting human souls - as commutative mechanisms. This image of mechanical transportation can be seen throughout Tsai's body of work, from the literal vessels of the dead (the mausoleum in Vive l'amour and the cremation urn - and later, Ferris wheel - of What Time is it There?) to the figurative vessels represented by the elevators. Rather than symbolizing an existential station as suggested by Jean Pierre Rehm in the Dis Voir book, the elevators instead seem to provide thematic parallel for man-made conveyances as a metaphor for the displaced physical body itself in contemporary (urban) society: a body that is subject to depersonalized, anonymous ritual and repetition - a phenomenon that becomes acutely evident in the joyless, mechanical, unrealistic, and de-eroticized sex scenes of Hsiao-Kang's (Kang-sheng Lee) porn films. Contrasted against the effervescent - and equally artificial - stylization of the musical sequences, what emerges is a bracing systematic deconstruction of fantasy, role-playing, and illusion.

© Acquarello 2005. All rights reserved.

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